NEW YORK — Six people squish together on a New York City subway bench-turned-sofa. Above them hang some rather far-fetched advertisements. One promises a life changing soda, another peddles a happiness-making hat. There’s also a coffee table upon which lies a book “Subway Monthly.” It’s a mural as incongruous as it is inviting.
“The subway is so much a part of being in the city. It’s where you spend so much time. I imagined what it would be like to visually conflate a living room and the subway,” said artist and New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast of her larger-than-life work.
The mural hangs at the entrance to “Roz Chast: Cartoon Memoirs,” a new exhibition at The City Museum of New York, co-presented with the Norman Rockwell Museum.
The show, which features 200 pieces of her work, captures what it means to live and move around New York City. It’s a mere sampling of her repertoire: Chast’s body of work includes over 1,200 cartoons published in The New Yorker, Scientific American, the Harvard Business Review, as well as several illustrated children’s books.
No topic is taboo for Chast. Aging? There’s a cartoon for that. Senility? Check. Mom dancing to the embarrassment of her teenage daughter? There’s a cartoon for that, too. And while critics and reviewers often perceive Chast as a chronicler life’s anxieties and absurdities, its pleasures and perils, the cartoonist doesn’t quite see herself that way.
“I understand people like to do that, that it’s a kind of shorthand, but I don’t like to put myself in a box. I like to draw cartoons,” said Chast, 62.
Chast honed her eye while growing up in the Brooklyn Jewish community of Flatbush. Though not particularly religious, her mother lit Shabbat candles; her father was known to enjoy bagels, lox and gefilte fish.
An only child, Chast recalls being the focus of her parent’s attention and looking for escape outside the cramped four walls of their apartment.
“With one child there’s just not an automatic built-in playmate and you have to do something or you will go batty. I liked to read, I liked to write. I liked to draw. I read the ‘Bobbsey Twins’ or anything that was around in the library. I was one of those kids who much preferred the indoors to the outdoors,” she said.
Her parents subscribed to the New Yorker and as a young girl she pored over the cartoons of Charles Addams. His dark and off-kilter humor appealed to Chast, as did the work of William Steig and Edward Gorey. Likewise the way Mad Magazine skewered and satirized American pop culture also appealed to Chast.
‘I was one of those kids who much preferred the indoors to the outdoors’
She started drawing cartoons for her friends when she was in her early teens. She discovered she liked making people laugh and realized she wanted to make a career of it.
After graduating from Rhode Island School of Design in 1977, Chast moved back to New York City. While she aspired to work for the Village Voice, she submitted several cartoons to the New Yorker, not thinking they’d accept any of them. She was happily surprised when she learned they accepted “Little Things.” The one panel cartoon depicted imaginary objects with imaginary names such as a “chent,” and “enker,” and a “bie.” That was 1978. She’s been working for the magazine ever since.
Eventually Chast and her husband, the humor writer Bill Franzen, traded New York City for Ridgefield, Connecticut, where they raised their two children. It was a study in contrasts. Sidewalks replaced subway platforms, chirping birds supplanted car alarms. And while it’s been decades, she said she still considers herself a New Yorker.
“I like being in the city. I like watching people. One of the things are all these people around all the time,” she said. “It’s sort of the complete opposite of other big cities I’ve been in, where there are no people on the streets after 3 pm. It’s like ‘Did a zombie apocalypse just happen?’ I just can’t get over it.”
Chast’s propensity for observation manifests itself in her work, be it single panel cartoons, multiple page nonfiction narratives, or Pysanka, the art of Ukrainian dyed Easter eggs. No matter which format she chooses, Chast’s work is very specific, from the themes and events portrayed to the characters that populate each piece.
Her 2014 graphic memoir “Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?” won the 2014 National Book Critics Circle Award. Chast combined cartoons, text, and photos to tell the story of how she helped her elderly parents navigate the end of their lives. In her memoir she frankly talks about what it was like to parent one’s parents, as well as how it led her to examine her own mortality.
“It’s inevitable that thing that happens as your parents move into that realm. You yourself are going to move into that realm, unless a piano drops on your head from a sixth floor window,” Chast said.
Chast submits between six and seven cartoons a week to the New Yorker. Mixed in with more topical subjects, she always puts in a few “wild card cartoons that I know won’t get accepted except for once in an extreme blue moon. But when they are that is so thrilling to me.”
It’s thrilling for this veteran cartoonist because even after all these years, rejection still stings and the quest for perfection continues.
“That feeling does not go away and my feeling is when it stops mattering I should stop,” she said. “I feel like there should be a long compound German word for that moment when you turn in a drawing and only when it’s out of your hands do you see what you could have done differently.”
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